CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Debate season is here, and West Virginians will get to see their candidates for governor face-to-face two weeks in a row.

The first starts at 7 p.m. Tuesday, sponsored by the West Virginia Press Association and AARP West Virginia. The moderator is West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Ashton Marra.

The second is exactly a week later, 7 p.m. Oct. 11. Hoppy Kercheval of MetroNews will moderate the debate, which is presented by the West Virginia Broadcasters Association and CityNet. The debate will be broadcast across the state on radio and television, and streamed live on

The debates match Democrat Jim Justice, West Virginia’s richest man, against Republican Bill Cole, the state Senate president and an auto dealer.

Will the debates be interesting?

Of course they will be. This is the race that just caused Politico to wonder, “Is West Virginia holding America’s weirdest election?

Although the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, is likely to win West Virginia by a landslide it remains to be seen whether Trump has the coattails to bring Cole along with him.

Justice, the billionaire who started out with greater name recognition because of his ownership of The Greenbrier Resort, is doing everything he can to distance himself from Democratic  presidential candidate Hillary Clinton because of the widespread perception in West Virginia that her policies are anti-coal.

Justice steered clear of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and later said “I cannot be a supporter of Hillary Clinton.”

Cole says he’s for Trump.

What else is weird?

Well, for one thing, there’s a war of words over whether the candidates will be standing at podiums or sitting in chairs. (Hint: chairs.)

Cole’s camp says he would prefer to think on his feet during the debates. His campaign has also become more vocal in its contention that Justice simply can’t stand up for long periods of time. The Cole campaign says this demonstrates health issues that could be limiting for a governor.

“You need to be able to stand up for 45 minutes and give a State of the State,” Cole said in an interview last week.

At a recent Democratic Party rally in Point Pleasant, Justice jokingly told the crowd an ingrown toenail would require that he sit to make his remarks.

With former Marshall football Coach Bob Pruett behind him, Jim Justice addresses a crowd in Mason County.

Point Pleasant Register

With former Marshall football Coach Bob Pruett behind him, Jim Justice addresses a crowd in Mason County.

What’s the difference between the candidates?

Good question. Charlotte Pritt, the Mountain Party candidate for governor, has called them both Republicans and says there is no difference.

Both have put job creation at the center of their campaigns.

Justice started talking about jobs the minute he applied to run for governor. He says his own connections and know-how are what’s required.

“Politicians just love to talk, but they can’t create jobs; I can,” he stated in his campaign’s first news release. “I am tired of all the excuses in Charleston. If you’re happy with the job the political class is doing, I am not your guy— I will take this state where it’s never been before. I’ll take West Virginia on a jobs rocket ride like no one could ever believe.”

Justice’s jobs vision includes promoting new uses for coal, finding a niche crop and attracting the next Dollywood or Disney resort.

He’s also banking on the power of positive thinking: “You need a governor that can market us to the world. I can!”

Cole says it’s not as simple as having high-profile connections and good intentions.

Cole’s jobs statement says:

“State government can’t guarantee prosperity by simply enacting a law that creates good paying jobs. If it were that easy, both Republicans and Democrats would have passed that bill years ago. Instead, the role of state government is to create and sustain the conditions that promote economic growth.”

His jobs platform emphasizes workforce training, limiting regulation and increasing broadband availability. He also proposes a West Virginia Economic Development Corporation public/private partnership to oversee the state’s economic development efforts.

Are these guys “career politicians?”


Although Jim Justice has interacted with the government a lot through his businesses, his only prior elected office was Raleigh County school board in the early 2000s.

Cole filled a House of Delegates vacancy for eight months of 2010. He was elected to the Senate in 2012 and became Senate president in 2014 when the Republicans won a thin majority.

Do they have any endorsements?

Both racked up two notable endorsements just last week.

Justice got the backing of outgoing Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

Cole got the nod from the state Chamber of Commerce. 

Both endorsements cited hopes for job creation.

Election Day is Nov. 8, so who’s winning?

Right now, just about everyone agrees Justice is winning. But the question is, by how much?

A Justice-backed poll released in early August showed Justice with a 10-point lead over Cole, 47-37, with 15 percent undecided.

The most recent MetroNews West Virginia Poll released Sept. 3 showed Justice at 46 percent and Cole at 32 percent with the rest going to other candidates or undecided.

A Republican-backed poll released late last month still showed a dead heat — Justice 44, Cole 42 with a 4 percent +/- margin of error.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball has the race as a toss-up, although it was cast as “leans Republican” back in the spring.

“While Republicans still have a very good chance to recover here, we’re forced to push this race from Leans Republican to Toss-up, and Justice probably is better than 50-50 to win,” according to Crystal Ball.

What would constitute good debates for Justice or Cole?

Cole needs to differentiate himself from Justice and persuade voters that his business experience and four years of Senate experience provide just the right balance.

“I think” a good debate outcome is simply that the voters get an opportunity to see and contrast the two candidates,” Cole said.

Voters might want to hear more specifics about Justice’s plans. His goal will be to convince those watching that he has a unique ability to be a game-changer for West Virginia’s economy.

At a speech last week covered by the Point Pleasant Register, Justice described dire circumstances if West Virginia voters select anyone but him:

“If you elect another politician, you and I will both die 50th, you mark it down, that’s what will happen. We’ve got a chance, we’ve got to run through the finish line. I love you, I love our state, all I want is goodness for all of us. We are the best, we don’t need to be 46th, we don’t need to be 10th. I’m like Ricky Bobby, if you’re second, you’re losing. I want us to be what we deserve to be and that’s first.”

Will there be more twists and turns by Election Day?


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